The Soda Academy
"How do you scale the business to service ever-increasing demands from a rapidly growing sales pipeline, without reducing quality?"
"Training young people is an ever-evolving experiment and we have learned a great deal."

Cain Ullah, Red Badger

Hiring Superstar Developers is Difficult. So Build Them.

Superstar Developers

With a buoyant market and ever increasing competition for the best talent, how can you scale your business without reducing quality? The answer is to complement your normal talent acquisition processes with a long-term strategic program that develops young talent from the start.

At Red Badger, a huge amount of investment goes into recruitment. Finding the best talent out there is difficult. As a company, we hang our hat on quality and are very fussy when it comes to hiring, but this poses a problem. After first being screened via a phone interview, job applicants seeking a developer role at Red Badger are then given a coding challenge. Out of every 100 coding challenges issued, only 2-3 make the grade. This is the environment everyone is working in at the moment. So, how do you scale the business to service ever-increasing demands from a rapidly growing sales pipeline, without reducing quality?

The answer is not an easy one and there are no short-term solutions beyond changing the recruitment process slightly (e.g. making our coding challenges easier). However, we do believe the long-term strategy is to improve our ability to develop from within. As a result, we are investing heavily in young talent to become senior leaders in their field.

Three and a half years ago (in November 2011), we took on our first intern. The key difference between our first foray into internships and most others was that we allowed the intern to work part-time over the course of several academic school years. He worked with us throughout his second year, just eight hours a week during the academic term. He then did a full 12-month gap year before returning to a part-time position at 16 hours a week during his final year.

In July of 2014, he accepted a permanent position. Upon graduation, he already had two and a half years of industry experience under his belt. He had been paired with senior developers throughout his internship and worked on real projects with our clients. As a result, he was able to hit the ground running and lead client projects right from the start after joining the company on a full-time basis. The benefits are plain to see:

  • You create a sense of loyalty having trained the staff member from a very young age
  • You dramatically increase the likelihood that the employee becomes a cost-effective, industry-hardened resource
  • You ensure the fact that the employee is ready to go on Day 1 in ways a fresh graduate without the same experience would not be

After this first internship, we have had nine participants across multiple disciplines in what we have now formalized as “Badger Academy.” Four of these have taken permanent roles, four are still in the Badger Academy system and one has chosen to change career path.

Training young people is an ever-evolving experiment and we have learned a great deal. Until recently, participants rotated through a group of coaches, meeting with a coach one day per week. In practice, this meant that each coach saw the participant only once every four weeks. We have come to the conclusion that this doesn’t work because it takes the rotating cast of coaches too long to catch up with what has happened since their last interaction.

As a result, we are now evolving the Academy once more. This summer, we’ll launch a cohort of first-year students who will begin an intensive two-month internship with a dedicated full-time coach. The syllabus will also be much more structured, starting with the basics and evolving into more advanced, modern web techniques.

After the summer, you either pass or fail and enter into the portion of the program that takes place during the regular academic school year. A gap year will still be offered the following year. Our goal is to eventually have 10 students accepting permanent positions each year, all of whom will be immediately productive.

This will be a significant contributor to the growth of the company. Based on pure headcount, it will allow us to service more projects. It will certainly help with margins as well but, more importantly, it will bring a vibrant, young pool of talent into the company with great energy, fresh ideas and more experience than is typically the case with new full-time hires. Mix that with experienced senior-level staff and you have a winning formula for growth and quality.

The key takeaway, besides providing a great learning experience, is to maintain engagement. We work with the participants from the start, throughout every term, all the way until graduation. This approach has allowed us to convert a very high percentage of the Badger Academy participants to highly productive full-time employees after their studies are complete.

Founder and CEO, Cain is responsible for Strategy, Culture, Sales and Marketing at Red Badger (@redbadgerteam). He has been an advocate of Agile and Lean methods of Software Delivery for over 10 years, and has helped many large corporations reduce waste, innovate and build excellent customer experiences. Cain tweets at @cainullah.